In her debut true crime book ‘Waiting for Elijah’, award-winning investigative journalist Kate Wild examines the events around the police shooting of a mentally ill man, 24-year-old Elijah Holcombe, in June 2009.
You started investigating the fatal shooting of Elijah Holcombe as part of a segment for the TV show ‘Four Corners’. When did you know you wanted to investigate the story more deeply with a full-length book?
The sense that Elijah’s story was complex and layered enough to fill a book was probably there subconsciously from the very early days. But I committed to the idea of writing the book on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2010.
Have you always been interested in true crime?
No, not at all. It’s only with Elijah’s book that I’ve ever considered myself interested in ‘true crime.’ If I try to classify what interests me in terms of subject matter it is always the day-to-day living of certain experiences or events. I’m drawn to stories where the human spirit is on display, where people face unexpected events or experiences and I feel there’s something to learn from how they cope and grow as a result of working out how to live with the circumstances they find themselves in.
How did you apply your skills as an investigative journalist to research and write this book?
By remembering all of the wonderful lessons I learned from watching investigative greats like Sarah Ferguson and Jenny Brockie, Alison McClymont and Ivan O’Mahoney. Work out what it is you want to know. What is the question you keep coming back to? What other questions spring from that one? Keep those in mind – everything you do leads back to these questions somehow. Approach people kindly and be clear with them and yourself in every contact, about what it is you are trying to do. Never settle for ‘close enough’. If you don’t feel like you’ve really found the answer, keep looking. Keep asking. What AREN’T people talking about? What does that tell you about your subject? Take notes, take notes, take notes. Always seek out the opposite point of view to your own. You will learn more than you imagined and see the world and the story more richly as a result. There are no simple answers to anything. Ask the question that feels most uncomfortable – that is the one you need to face up to. In essence, I used the skills I’ve learned as an investigative journalist to make sure the factual basis of the book and the many stories within it, were solid. Every reader looks for different things in a book. For some, the investigative fact-finding parts of the story are the stepping stones they’ll use to walk through the book. For others, those factual markers are guideposts in their peripheral vision. They offer security but they don’t matter as much as the emotional journey the reader is taken on. I tried to use my investigative skills to bring muscle to the emotional bones of Elijah and Andrew’s story.
In ‘Waiting for Elijah’, there are many different accounts telling the same story. How did you go about taking the sometimes contradictory and conflicting perspectives and putting them into a coherent story?
The police who investigated Elijah’s shooting did such a thorough, wonderful job of collecting clear statements from different eye witnesses to the shooting, that it wasn’t hard at all to show the varying points of view on what had happened. I didn’t ever feel it was up to me to decide which witnesses were right and which were wrong. It was only my job to make clear to readers that all of these accounts were given in good faith; every person told police what they saw that day. Making those many different points of view coherent to a reader boiled down to highlighting the point of divergence in those accounts because up to a certain point, everyone pretty much saw the same thing. Where things got ‘messy’ in terms of evidence was in the final moment of confrontation between Elijah and Andrew. People’s view of what Elijah and Andrew did really only diverged in that crucial moment.
What was the most confronting part of telling this story for you?
Approaching the police for their view of fatal contact with mentally ill people was a very scary thing to do. Police officers as individuals and the police force as an organisation can be very intimidating. Emitting a sense of authority is part of their job but it took a lot of courage to walk up to different officers and ask to speak with them. The subject of fatal police shootings is such a sensitive one emotionally, operationally and legally – so I was crossing all sorts of boundaries. Also, I really like and respect the police and I was perhaps too conscious, that police might assume I was coming to the subject of police shootings with my mind already made up.
Having the courage to make myself vulnerable to their judgement was very confronting.
You became closely acquainted with many of the people you write about in this book. Did you find it difficult to stay objective?
This is a question I get asked a lot. I don’t think one can remain objective in the moment of an emotional connection with someone, and personally, I don’t think you need to or should. Real human connection requires a willingness to be seen and experienced as you are. If, as a journalist, you are asking someone to give you themselves in that way you have to be prepared to offer the same back. I am a human being before I am a journalist – I hope that is something I bring to my exchanges with people no matter what story I am covering. So in the moment of an experience with someone, I don’t think I am objective. It is when I step back from that experience and turn to writing it down or finding its place in a story, that the professional objectivity steps in. The task at hand is then to see ‘what does this moment tell me about this person’s experience of what was going on?’ That is the moment when I remove myself from the story (although not as much in Elijah’s story) and examine the words and actions of the other person, free from my involvement in them.
It has been nine years since the tragic shooting of Elijah Holcombe. In that time, do you think anything has changed/improved in the first response system for people having a mental health crisis? Are police still the main first responders and are they better trained to manage this vital role?
A lot has changed in NSW in terms of the training police receive in how to deal with someone in psychiatric crisis. Police now receive at minimum a full day’s training, rather than the one hour Andrew Rich had received. A percentage of NSW officers receive four days extra training on top of that. So police in NSW are better-trained in how to respond and they are very often still first-responders in situations where someone is psychotic in public and appear to be a threat to themselves or someone else.
What else has changed in terms of first-response capacity for mental health crises around Australia in that time is far too complex an issue to cover in this small space. Suffice to say that the mental health sector across Australia is still very underfunded, and this leaves people in crisis, their families, and the police, very vulnerable.
‘Waiting for Elijah’ has been compared to Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ and to Helen Garner’s true crime non-fiction. Is that daunting?
I think it’s far more flattering than daunting! Who wouldn’t want to have their work mentioned in the same sentence as such wonderful, truthful writers?
Responses to a story as complex as Elijah’s, and to any story really, are so personal and individual that comparing and contrasting writers doesn’t really come into the picture.
I can only write the world the way I see it and try as hard as I can to be fair and balanced. If I have achieved the level of personal honesty that Chloe brought to The Tall Man, and Helen brings to everything, I am very pleased.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given about tackling a true story?
Talk to the people the story happened to – not ‘experts’ who have considered but ultimately bloodless opinions about the story.
About Kate Wild
Kate Wild is an investigative journalist whose work with distinguished teams at the ABC has been recognised with three Walkley Awards and a Logie. Her reports from Darwin, where she lived from 2010 to 2016, laid the groundwork for a ‘Four Corners’ story on juvenile detention that prompted the calling of a Royal Commission. Like Elijah Holcombe, Kate grew up in country New South Wales; she now lives and works in Sydney. ‘Waiting for Elijah’ is her first book.